Wednesday 18 June 2014

The origins of the Viking bathhouse myth

We have spent some 10 years arguing that that the "first farmers", the Neolithic culture that brought cows, crops and ceramics to Britain 6000 years ago, possessed the material culture necessary for turning cereals into ale, and that there is sufficient archaeological evidence to merit investigation. Nobody in the archaeological community could be convinced. It is still considered to be a controversial theory. We have no idea why. Maybe it is a paradigm shift too far for some archaeologists to bridge, that cereals were initially cultivated for their potential sugars, a status crop, and not for their starches, a staple crop. So we considered investigating an era in which there should be no controversy.

We visited the island of Wyre in Orkney, and inspected "Cubbie Roo's" castle. This was built by Kolbein Hrugr, hrugr means "heap", he was a big man. It is mid 13th Century and one of the older mortar and stone built castles extant in Scotland. It is a fascinating site on one of the now remoter islands of Orkney. We were surprised, amazed and overwhelmed to find a stone built "mash oven" in an outbuilding round the back. Our excitement was because this could be the oldest mash oven in Europe. This building has a stone bench, perfect as an ale store, and drains. It would be very suitable for making ale, but so far archaeologists have interpreted this as just an ordinary oven.

Cubbie Roo's mash oven, Wyre, Orkney.

the medieval brewer, stirring the mash

We are lucky on Orkney to have well preserved Viking sites. A friend and neighbour suggested that we might like to look at the drains at the site on the Brough of Birsay.

Birsay is the late 10th Century base of Sigurd the Stout and his son Thorfinn.  In the Orkneyinga Saga they are renowned for their hospitality. We can imagine the great feasts they had there. This might even be the site of Sigurd's Yule Feast, where Kari slew Gunnar Lambi's son in front of King Sigtrygg of Dublin ( pp xxvii-xxviii, Orkneyinga Saga, edited by Joseph Anderson.)

Drains are significant for brewing installations. The mashing process makes sugars from the malt and these are very sticky and messy. Any spillage or accidents have to be washed away, and the brewing equipment has to be kept clean. A brewery cannot function without effective drains.

one of the massive stone lined drains at Birsay

There is a massive drain running down the middle of what I think is the head of the Viking causeway, most of which has been eroded by the sea. To the right of this causeway, looking back to the mainland, is the so called "Viking Sauna" (see photo below) with stone slabs on edge, supposedly to support wooden benching. I heard an expert on TV saying that "they poured hot water down the drain under these benches, to keep their bums warm". I think it's far more likely to be the brew house and ale store.

not the sauna - this is the brew house and ale store
On the left of the causeway, looking towards the mainland, is a building interpreted as a "Bathhouse or Sauna", in the photo below. It looks more to me like a mash house. It has a bench and a large hearth and drains along the wall. One end has been lost to the sea, and it is thought that there was a large hall or langskaill further out to sea.

the mash house, with large stone shelf & several drains

I was puzzled. These installations are little different to the Orkney Brewery, which is just down the road at Quoyloo. Rob Hill's Swannay Brewery, also on Orkney, uses the same installations - a mash tun and fermenting vessels. How on earth could anyone think that these buildings were a Bathhouse and a Sauna? Maybe they knew absolutely nothing about how beer is made.

When I get puzzled by archaeology, I like to read the original excavation reports. This tells me what came out of the ground and there are usually nuggets of really useful information that are lost or not mentioned in summaries.

The earliest reference to 'Viking Bathhouses or Saunas' that I could find came from Dr Alexander Curle's excavations at Jarlshoff, Shetland, published in 1935, in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS 69). He wrote that "...the presence of such a drain, and the condition of the ash deposited within it, suggest the possibility of the remains of a bath-house existing nearby." (page 284).

Curle explains that this is the first Viking settlement excavation in Britain, and that his interpretations are based upon the work of Thorsteinn Erlingsson, who wrote about Icelandic settlements. In his book  Ruins of the Saga Time, published in 1895. Erlingsson describes the components of the traditional farmstead house, including the bath-stofa or bathroom. He describes it as being part of the main structure and it is not a separate building.

Jarlshof, Shetland - is this the bath house, hof, a religious building or a brewhouse?

The structure in question at Jarlshof (see photo above) was beneath a mausoleum and it was not excavated until the 1950s by JRC Hamilton. Alexander Curle did not actually excavate it. In the foreground is a large longhearth and a substantial drain. To the rear of the building there is what looks to me like the bowl or footings of a grain drier.

So how on earth could Dr. Curle know that it was a bath-house, other than making the assumption that it was, because of the drains and and a means of heating water?

This remained a mystery to me until I stumbled across Dr. Alexander Curle's excavation report for another Viking age site, at Freswick, Caithness, Scotland, published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in 1939, see PSAS 73 . In this, he describes a feature that, at first sight looks very much like a small Roman style bath-tub, with a large hearth and drains.

I was devastated, despite the complete absence of any mention of bath-houses in the Sagas, here was an archetypal bath-house. The Sagas describe the practice of bathing in streams, lakes and rivers. There were even open-air hot baths in Iceland, thanks to the natural hot springs there. Otherwise the Vikings habitually bathed in tubs of hot water in the andyri or porch. Even the King of Norway took his bath in a tub. 

reconstruction of Snorri Sturlussun's 'bath house' makes use of a hot spring, 
it is in the open air and is nothing like the buildings at the Brough of
Birsay & Jarlshof.

Then one day I re-read "The Vikings in Scotland" by James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E Batey. On page 198, the Viking settlement at Freswick is discussed:

"... as part of the re-examination of this building through  the surviving records, several problems became clear, the most significant being the complete stratigraphical separation between the secondary structure and the underlying drain. These could never have been associated and thus the secondary building is unlikely to have been a bath-house."

It was now obvious to me. Dr Alexander Curle was already aware of Freswick when he excavated Jarlshof, and this had influenced his interpretation. It has also influenced the interpretations of Viking sites for many other excavators and archaeologists since then. Whenever they find drains and a means of heating water, they interpret it as a "bath-house", even though the original archetype has been found to be wrong.

Interestingly the Brough of Birsay was excavated under the direction of Dr Curle's daughter-in-law, Cecil Curle, so she would have followed the family tradition and their interpretations. 

In short, most archaeologists do not know how to make beer from the grain. They certainly drink it, and they may even have made beer from kits, but they do not understand the processes, and so they do not recognise the installations in any era up until the late Mediaeval when monasteries brewed.

What a sad loss.

further reading
We presented a poster at the 7th Experimental Archaeology Conference, Cardiff University. It can be downloaded here:

Where were the Viking Brew Houses? 

more reading (added June 25th 2014) 
We wrote a paper for the EXARC Journal, it has been peer reviewed and it is currently on the member's only section of the Journal. It will be released for everyone to access, download and read in the near future, probably later this year.

In the meantime, here is a shorter version of that paper, published in the Orkney Archaeological Society Newsletter. We called it 'Where did the Vikings make their ale?'.


Lars Marius Garshol has been studying Norwegian Farmhouse brewing for a long time and is an expert in this field. The methods and equipment that he describes seem to us to have changed very little, if at all, from those of the 10C.
For anyone who wishes to understand or recreate Viking style brewing his work is an invaluable resource. Here is his Blog.

Lars' Blog


Monday 9 June 2014

Ale or mead - a numerical and functional analysis

Mead is frequently mentioned in the early Germanic literature, more so than ale. This, together with the Saxon mead halls of the poetry, gives the impression that mead was widely available. Everyone drank mead because honey was widely available. However, a functional and numerical analysis does not support this.

Sugars ferment into alcohol. Mead is made from honey and ale is made from malt sugars. These malt sugars are made in the mash tun by heating crushed malt with hot water, 65C, for about an hour for the malt enzymes to convert the malt starches into sugars. In both cases the relative amounts are about the same:

2 to 3lbs of honey to make 1 gallon (Imperial) of Mead
2 to 3lbs of malt to make 1 gallon of Ale or Beer, or approximately 1kg to 3 litres.

Prior to 18th Century, bee keeping was unscientific and honey gathering was a destructive process. Thomas Wildman in 1768 describes these improvements. Traditionally bees were kept in voids of many sorts, skeps, hollow logs, and clay jars.

a traditional skep details here

The bees created their own combs inside, often cross attached. The only way to get the honey was to destroy the colony.

In 1860, L.L. Langstroth developed a design for hives with exchangeable combs and it was now possible to harvest honey without damage. Before then honey was a scarce and valuable commodity, and highly prized.

Langstroth hives - a Victorian invention details here
However malt is readily available. All that is needed is a crop of grain, preferably barley, and a malt barn to process it in.

Today honey is about 10 times the cost of malt, weight for weight. In mediaeval times it may well have been even dearer.

Bere barley is an early, primitive but very vigorous strain that was certainly grown by the early Viking farmers in Orkney and is still grown to this day. It is the only arable crop that will grow in the far North in places like Iceland. Gordon Childe noted that the impression of a grain of Bere was found on an Unstan Ware pot in Orkney, dating from the 4th Millennium BC.

Bere is a "skinny" grain. It does not contain as much starch as modern barley varieties. So to make ale from Bere malt the ratios will be more like 3-4 lb of crushed malt to make one gallon of ale

Svein Asleiferson was a renowned Viking warrior. He is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. He was also known to be a fastidious farmer. He would spend the spring personally supervising the sowing of his crops, then spend the summer on raiding trips. When he returned in autumn he would again supervise the harvesting of his crops, and again go raiding until the start of winter, when he would return and spend the winter on Gairsay together with his 80 fighting men. They would probably not stay loyal and remain with him, unless he could provide some sort of hospitality for them.

I suggest that he was growing his grain to make malt and ale and not for bread, gruel or porridge.  I estimate that the warriors and retinue would drink the ale from about 4 tons of malt in this time, about 2,200 gallons or 30 barrels. This could easily be grown on 2 or 3 acres of good land, according to yield figures from Orkney Agronomy Institute. Finding 2 or 3 tons of honey on Orkney would not be easy.

It is interesting that the Viking poetry refers predominantly to mead, with very little mention of ale, whereas the Viking Sagas refer to ale far more than mead. I suggest that mead was quite scarce and highly prized, fit for the Kings and Gods. Ale was for the warriors and mortals.

this post was written by Graham

further reading

Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting
Eva Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping

The Bee Hive: a history of beekeeping

Wednesday 4 June 2014

malt is a confusing thing

It seems that malt is a very confusing thing. The word 'malt' means different things to different people. Some people immediately think of malt whisky - a single malt or maybe blended malts. Others might think of a malted milky bedtime drink, like Horlicks. Other brands are, of course, available.

a sticky sweet spoonful of malt extract (photo:
a modern product
Or is it that sticky, viscous, sweet, dark brown syrup like stuff that you get in a tin in your beer kit? The stuff that you mix with water and boil? No, that is malt extract.

Malt extract is considered to be very good for you - it's an added ingredient in many breakfast cereals. When I do demonstrations, I always take a jar of malt extract for people to taste. They are reminded of their childhood, and of eating a spoonful every day, for the B Vitamins.

Malt extract is made by boiling wort in a vacuum and the technique was only discovered in the late 19th Century AD. Oh, and there is malt vinegar as well. And malt loaves. Many brewers use a liquid or a dry malt extract. Known as LME and DME, it's a main ingredient of beer kits in the 21st Century. Malt extract is also important to the modern food processing industry, particularly so in the USA it seems.

Prohibition forced maltsters to think of a different way to process and sell their malt, other than as alcoholic drinks, like beer and whisky. Prohibition was the death knell to many American breweries in the 1920s.

It's no wonder that so many people are confused about malt.

malt whisky. nice but not neolithic
I had a conversation about the archaeological evidence for malt with a fellow tour guide a few months ago. I thought we had a strange exchange of views, but it was only when they turned to go and mentioned that they were very surprised that the neolithic folk knew all about distillation. Did they use the pots for distilling? I realised that they thought I was talking about malt whisky manufacture in the neolithic. For this person, the word 'malt' meant whisky and nothing else.
malt on a traditional malting floor

For me, 'malt' means partly germinated grain which has been carefully dried for further processing by brewers and/or distillers. It is traditionally made on the malting floor. The grain has been steeped and aerated, then it is spread out on the floor in a cool, dark, well ventilated building to begin to grow. Once the rootlet and shoot begin to show, it is gently dried in a kiln. We had been talking about two very different things. As part of writing this blog, I checked the  Encyclopedia Britannica for its' descriptions of what malt is, how it is made and what it is used for.

Much of the detail is correct, but there are a few salient details omitted. For example, there is no mention of the air rests that are an essential part of the steeping process. If you just leave the grain to soak or steep without air rests, then the grain will be killed. It will, effectively, drown. Ancient and traditional techniques include leaving the grain in a bag in a shallow stream. This provides the essential oxygen and water for the germination process to begin. Modern methods use huge steep tanks. 

Grain needs both water and oxygen to begin germination. If the steep is not aerated, then it will not take long for the water and grain to smell horrible and for the grain to be bad. It will not begin to germinate, you will not have any enzymes to convert starch into sugars and you will not be able to make ale. Or beer. Or whisky.

In the first stages of germination of any grain - wheat, barley, oats or rye - the enzymes necessary for the conversion of starch into sugars are liberated, and then the growth begins. If this continues, starches are used up, so it is important to stop the growth as soon as the shoot and root appear amongst most of the grains. This is usually when the acrospire (rootlet and shoot) are one third the length of the grain.

Often, descriptions in the archaeological and anthropological scholarly literature of how to make malt are not accurate. Some describe malt as 'toasted barley sprouts'. Anyone who says that malt is like toasted, sprouted barley, suggesting that it is something like dried bean sprouts, have obviously never handled proper malt.

It is very important to talk to a maltster to understand how to make malt, to ask the practitioners, the skilled people who make it. Craftsmanship not scholarship.

Graham brings a 25 kilo sack of crushed malt from the brewing suppliers into the house. Then he makes beer with it, using basic equipment - a mash tun, a boiler and fermenters. Lots of people have tried Graham's home brewed beer and it is considered to be top quality, good and tasty.

What is this crushed malt in the sack?

Where does it come from, who makes it and how?

As I was doing the mashing experiments in the garden, using beeswax sealed earthenware bowls as mini mash tuns, I became more and more interested in the malt and how it was made. I studied the science of grain germination physiology, learning about what happens inside the grain as it begins to grow. It is fascinating and complex, worthy of a blog post of its' own.

this post was co written by Graham and Merryn